Filmmaker Burns highlights Hall of famer's personal life
By Jon Weisman
Special to MLB.com |
With each passing year, the stature of Jackie Robinson looms larger in the history of baseball and the United States.
But it has been nearly 70 years since Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, nearly 60 years since he retired from baseball and well over 40 years since he passed away. And in that time, the flesh-and-blood Robinson has only grown more and more remote.
"This is a person who has become kind of one-dimensional, [because] heroism in our media culture tends to make you just one-dimensional -- perfect," said famed documentarian Ken Burns, who with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon directed and produced the four-hour "Jackie Robinson," airing in April on PBS.
"The story of Jackie is complex, and you don't diminish him -- in fact, I think he gets better -- for knowing all that complexity."
Featuring never-before-seen images and video, "Jackie Robinson" debunks some of the mythology around the Dodger pioneer, such as the fable that Pee Wee Reese calmed a hostile Cincinnati crowd in 1947 during Robinson's rookie year by crossing the field to put his arm around the baseball pioneer.
"This was not mentioned in Jackie's autobiography, it was not mentioned in the white press, and it was never mentioned in the black press, which would have run 10 different stories on it if that had happened," Burns said. "And if anyone knows anything about baseball, that first year, Jackie's at first base, and you don't go traipsing across the diamond from shortstop to put your arm around somebody. I think it happened later on, probably because they had become friends and they had played together. And what happened, inevitably, is stuff gets conflated."
More importantly, the documentary brings to life the setbacks Robinson faced off the field, that had little if anything to do with sports.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson's marriage, for example, has been idealized over time. But their relationship becomes all the more meaningful and poignant with the revelation that the two broke up during World War II -- Rachel returning his engagement ring -- three years before Jackie's debut with the Dodgers.
"He got very upset because he thought I was coming into the Army, as a nurse, and I wasn't," Rachel Robinson recalled in the documentary. "So that was one of our little spats, and I had to send him his ring back, so he wouldn't think he could tell me what to do."
Rachel and Jackie reunited and married in 1946, remaining inseparable until his death in '72. Like any other parent, the Robinsons agonized over their children. Their first child, Jackie Jr., struggled with drug addiction, and when he finally emerged from a treatment program, eventually becoming a counselor there, Jackie was ebullient, saying "that moment paid for every single bit of anguish I had ever undergone -- I had my son back."
But when the documentary shares the tragic coda, that Jackie Jr. was killed at age 24 in a 1971 automobile accident, Robinson, for all his other worldliness, becomes entirely human for us: a father who lost his child.
Winding through "Jackie Robinson" is a depiction of how some alternately embraced and recoiled from Robinson, illustrating how even after ensuring his remarkable place in American history, he was still vulnerable to intense criticism.
In particular, Robinson navigated rough waters politically throughout his adult life. In 1949, during a season that would end with him winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award, Robinson was compelled by the U.S. Congress (with a healthy nudge from the man who brought him to the big leagues, Dodger team president Branch Rickey) to testify in a hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Robinson was to respond to comments made by another prominent African-American of the era, the entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, that people of their race would not support the U.S. in a war with the Soviet Union.
"Jackie was, in a small portion of the African-American community, no longer the great hero that he was for the rest of that community, and for a good deal of the United States," Burns said. "So what I think we did was we put this all in perspective."
It only grew more complicated in the 1960s, when Robinson was in the thick of a Civil Rights movement that offered its own profound internal conflicts.
"You could see him flailing, trying to find the right way to get through all this tumult," said author Howard Bryant, one of the commentators in the documentary. "But he stayed in the fight."
Without a doubt, Robinson remained revered by most of America, and there's a reason that feeling has grown stronger over time. Some of the greatest insight into Jackie -- and Rachel -- comes through President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
"You begin to realize here are four people, two couples, hurdling through space and time that are separated by decades and yet have this commonality," Burns said. "Jackie couldn't have done it without Rachel ... and I don't think the President could have done it without Michelle. As [Obama] himself said, 'It's really good when people are criticizing you that way, to find someone who has your back who loves you.' I mean, what better thing?
"And there's that moment when the most powerful couple on earth suddenly is just like the rest of us, where [Michelle] is saying, 'I think Jackie was really smart to pick Rachel,' and he looks to her and he goes, 'No, really?' And we all laughed, because we know exactly that moment. ... For a second, the story of Jackie and Rachel is united with the story of Barack and Michelle, but also with the rest of us. And that's what you look for in art, that's what you look for in film, that's what you look for in history, those moments when it all comes alive."
It should come as no surprise that no one can convey better than Rachel Robinson the spark that was Jackie, the humanity of Jackie, and the immense hole that his passing left behind.
Not a god or a statue, but a husband and a man.
"What I miss the most is having a trusted friend I could talk to any time about anything," Rachel said. "I cherish that, because we had to go through a lot of things together. The second thing I miss is having his arms around me. He was very, very expressive and loving, and I miss that. I miss that a lot."
Jon Weisman is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.